Assassin’s Creed: Liberation (PC)

I’m not really a fan of Asscreed, in general.  I played and greatly enjoyed the first two games, but then I just kinda stopped caring about the series.  This was partly due to its subsequent over-saturation, but also because as the series expanded, it became a bloated mess to behold.  I’m not greatly invested in the overall “lore” or anything.  Truth be told, with one or two exceptions that prove the rule, I’m pretty averse to so-called “triple A” gaming.  Asscreed became one of those game series that normies buy, a yearly-releasing turd-behemoth like Madden or Cawadoody.  I find it really disgusting that I have to install Uplay on top of Steam just to play this game.  It’s like a stain on my hard drive.

Liberation initially came and went unnoticed by me, both because I didn’t give a shit about its series and also because I didn’t have a Vita (let’s be real: who does?).  It first grabbed my attention a few years ago when it came out on Steam as an HD re-release.  I snagged it out of pure curiosity.  Basically, I remembered at one time having some fun with Asscreed 1 and 2, and this one actually had a woman on the cover.  “Okay,” I thought, “let’s see what you’ve been up to, Ubisoft.”

I went in with zero expectations, and I’m glad to report that I was very pleasantly surprised!  This is going to sound a bit silly to actual fans of the series, who seem to really hate this game (GEE I WONDER WHY), but Liberation might be my favorite Asscreed.  Since playing this one, I’ve looked around at other later entries in the series more seriously, but I can’t say they look very interesting to me.  Liberation has a very different emphasis and theme, and a very different flow of gameplay.  I actually really like this game a lot, and what I’d like to try and do here is to try and convey to you why that is, so that maybe you’ll appreciate it more, too.  With a pending release on the Switch in a few months at time of writing, I’d like to encourage everyone to give this one a try.

Liberation takes place in and around New Orleans in the 18th century (during the French and Indian War), and stars Aveline de Grandpré, an African-French woman and the daughter of a wealthy French guy and his unofficial slave wife.  After Aveline was born, her father freed both her and her mother.  Shortly afterward, Aveline’s mother abandons her under mysterious circumstances, and her father remarries.  This places Aveline at a unique intersection of class, gender, and “race”, which the game explores both thematically and mechanically, which I find incredibly interesting.  Aveline is also already an Assassin when the game begins, so we skip over all that tedious origin story stuff.

Aveline has three personas she can assume: “the Slave”, “the Lady”, and “the Assassin”, which correspond to unique outfits she can wear.  Each of these outfits says something about the position Aveline occupies in New Orleans society in the 18th century.

assassin

As the Assassin, Aveline has access to all of her movement and combat abilities and tools, implying that this is her true self.  This is her at her most powerful and free.  It is also, consequently, the outfit that draws the most attention and ire from authority.  Merely being seen in this outfit pisses off law enforcement, and its base notoriety is always 1 out of 4 possible levels.  Doing anything unusual such as running around or climbing on things will cause her notoriety to skyrocket (well, relatively speaking.  I’ll get to that).

Interestingly, Aveline’s mentor in the Assassins, a man named Agaté, lives in the Bayou outside the city limits.  He has dark skin, covers himself in body paint and piercings, uses Louisiana Voodoo terminology, and dresses somewhat “primitively”.  I think the intent was to contrast him against Gérald Blanc (“white” in French? really?), a guy who clearly has a crush on Aveline but works alongside her in the Assassins as sort of her handler or information guy without pushing that boundary.  Very mature, I like this guy.  The messaging here is a little bit disturbing, however, given that this also places Aveline under two men’s tutelage in order to access her true self.  But just the same, given where the story goes, we can’t really say either Agaté or Gérald “control” Aveline per se, or even really gatekeep her or anything.  So I think I’ll let this one slide.

As a woman who lives in America, in the world, under patriarchy, I have to say the idea that Aveline-as-Assassin drawing retribution from authority for acting freely and powerfully resonates with me a lot.  By doing things that come naturally to her, by simply existing, even, Aveline pisses off the guards.  When women speak and act with confidence in the real world instead of effacing ourselves or constantly apologizing, we’re viewed as being aggressive or combative, something I beat my head against a lot in my life.

lady

The Lady is unable to climb, and moves a little more slowly, due to how restrictive her fancy dress is.  She also gains notoriety much more slowly than the other personas.  She can bribe guards to gain access to areas, and charm men to follow her around, which in turn serves to protect her from muggers, which harass her if she’s by herself in back alleys or on the docks, et cetera.  This persona is also much weaker in combat.  The game says she can’t sprint, but uhhh she totally can.  Her run is a bit slower, though.

Again, this is something I really struggle with in my own life.  Women who play up our femininity and use our “charms” find that we do gain some power by doing so, and can gain access to places nobody else can go, for sure.  The flipside of that is that our behavior becomes limited to only acting within the strictures of acceptable/feminine behavior, like a social version of the whalebone corsets of old.  Walking around New Orleans in the game as the Lady, you get greeted constantly by passersby, but always generically.  You are the fancy dress.  You’re forced to rely on having a man around, for protection from other men.  There are places you can’t go, your life is policed by the threat of violence and rape.  That’s all 100% real shit, this is what being a woman is like.  So few games even bother to try to capture this stuff.

slave

Finally, the Slave persona allows Aveline to blend in by carrying things, or pretending to work.  Like the Lady, this persona is also sort of invisible, but rather than by charm and bribery, it’s by virtue of people’s unwillingness to acknowledge “the help” as people, with all the racist implications of that.  Those muggers for whom the Lady is a ripe target only make threatening or lewd gestures and catcalls at the Slave, which isn’t exactly accurate to how women of color and of low socioeconomic standing get treated by white men, but like, I get why they differentiated it for the game’s mechanics.  This persona is able to use certain small weapons, such as a sugarcane machete, but can’t use pistols or larger swords.  Despite the game claiming that only the Assassin persona can “climb freely”, though, I can’t seem to find a difference in movement between the Assassin and the Slave, which sort of undercuts the clean division / “true self” idea, admittedly.  Also later on, the Lady gets some cool specialized weapons, too, like a gun umbrella.  A gunbrella.

All of these personas build their own separate notoriety meters, which is interesting because it expresses how people only see Aveline as her presentation, her clothing.  This is a theme the Hitman series also explores, albeit comedically.  To white people, “passing” and taking on various social roles is a game, not anything to be taken seriously.  Anyway, to reduce the Lady’s notoriety, any persona can kill the witnesses to her flouting societal norms.  To reduce the Slave’s, tearing down wanted posters does it.  Reducing the Assassin’s notoriety is done by bribing magistrates.  I wish there had been some restriction on which personas can reduce which other ones’ notoriety, or maybe something a bit more intricate to do, or something with less of an impact.  One tiny bribe immediately removes basically all of the Assassin’s notoriety.  Tearing down like 2 posters or killing one witness erases the Slave’s and Lady’s respectively.  Especially given how slowly notoriety builds in this game, it would’ve been nice to have some stakes or consequences here to really hammer home the themes.

Aveline is able to assume both the Lady and the Slave personas by virtue of her skin color, which is light brown.  She’s light-skinned enough to “pass” as the Lady, and dark-skinned enough to “pass” as the Slave.  And here is where I basically have to check out of the discussion, because, being a pale-skinned / “white” person, I pretty much have no right to speak on the social issues that face people of mixed-skin-color parentage.  But I find it really fascinating that this game gives me maybe a small window into what that experience might be like, a little bit.  I have no doubt that it’s a massive oversimplification, but it’s something.  And that’s really cool.

What I also think is really interesting is how the Assassin represents the only persona in which Aveline is really seen as herself, and she’s greatly penalized by society for standing out like that.  If she wasn’t an assassin, she’d be condemned to a life as either the Lady or the Slave.  But with her membership in the Order, she has a place where she can be herself, an outlet for her aggression against the oppressive systems that want so badly to keep her in her place.

Something else that’s interesting is how Aveline relates to her stepmom while in her Lady persona, which also allows her access to her help for dealing with “womanly troubles” (such as sneaking out at night to engage in social justice).  This is a succinct (if a little shallow) nod to the networks of female power and support that spring up even under oppressive masculine systems, and I liked those moments a lot.

So, with Aveline, we have not only some great representation of somebody other than Yet Another Fucking Pale Man, but we also have this fantastic mechanical examination of intersectionality and how it affects the life of this character.  The “two worlds” Aveline stands between are actually a lot more than that.  Not only the class divide and the “race” divide, but also the contrast between the Bayou and New Orleans proper, and what they represent, between Gérald Blanc and Agaté.  Regardless of anything else the game does, this right here should be enough to make you sit up and go “oh hey.”

The meat of the engine is drawn from AC3, so from what I’ve been able to gather, the mechanics are simpler than they eventually become in later entries.  Compared to 1 and 2 (my only previous experience with the series), there are a few more things at play.  You can pickpocket people, which is neat for RP but doesn’t provide very much money.  It’s used in some missions where you have to tail someone and then steal something from them unnoticed, so that’s neat.  There’s also this “chain kill” system, where you highlight people and then watch a long movie of Aveline killing all of them for free.  That’s kinda cool.  I don’t really feel like either of these things add much to the game, though, and chain killing in particular makes some combat scenes way too easy.  Only the Assassin persona can use it, though.

The low level of difficulty is probably my only real complaint with the game.  You have to deliberately avoid the notoriety-lowering mechanics for a really long time to get any kind of significant notoriety on any of the non-Assassin personas, and on any persona but the Lady, the countering mechanic is so forgiving as to be a little silly.  Add in the chain kill system and the power of your pistol to immediately kill from range, and you’ve got a recipe for a pretty easy game.  It’s not the end of the world, really, since for me the main draws are the characters and story.  And anyway, I don’t mean to imply by my critique that I’m ungrateful for what we’ve been given here.  I think this is a great jumping-off point for going even farther.  How many games even attempt to explore this kind of territory?

Liberation does feel a little stoppy-starty in how it tells its story, especially at first when they’re doing time skips a lot and you’re kinda jumping from scene to scene.  I think this is a byproduct of it being a Vita title, plus some in-universe justification.   The game’s conceit is that it’s an Abstergo product.  I’m not super super up on the lore, like I said, but I know that Abstergo is a Templar front.  In other words, not a reliable narrator for a story about an Assassin.  Which means it’s probably heavily edited, which in turn explains the jump cuts all over the place.  Nice little in-lore reason for a limitation of the original platform, I feel.  Small side note here, unrelated: I’m not super keen on this series’ depiction of the Knights Templar.  I feel like they get a bad rap in the culture as it is without these games shitting all over them too.

Let’s talk about the actual Templars for a second.  The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, aka the Knights of the Order of Solomon, aka the Knights Templar or just the Templars, were a Catholic military order of fighting monks tasked with protecting pilgrims to Jerusalem from bandits back in the day.  Whether you were Catholic, Muslim, or Jewish, all travelers and pilgrims on the roads fell under their protection.  They were total badasses in combat, and one of the pioneers of an early and extremely reliable system of banking.  You could drop off money of whatever value at one Templar bank, go to another one of their THOUSAND locations, and withdraw the equivalent value from there.  In the fucking 12th century CE.  Across national borders.  That is completely nuts.  These guys were way ahead of their time, they were pretty damn honorable and awesome (especially for a knightly order, a lot of knights were assholes), and they were destroyed in a really unjust and shitty way, the whole order tortured and murdered because the King of France at the time was in debt to them and wanted to not be that.  Over 200 years of greatness, like about as long as the US has been around, torn down in an instant because of greed.  Seeing these guys get slandered all to hell and back in half the media that even bothers to depict them is something that, as a history buff, I find offensive.  RIP Hugues de Payens, RIP Jacques de Molay, RIP every single lost brother tortured into a false confession or burned at the stake.  Fuck King Phillip IV.  It’s fucked up, y’all.  I’m Buddhist and even I like these guys.  Shit was unjust.

Anyway.

The “Templars” of Asscreed are basically the Illuminati, and they’re up to their nasty moustache-twirling tricks again in Liberation.  At the start of the story, they’re kidnapping slaves from New Orleans plantations to go work on some mysterious project, with the willing cooperation of the governor of the colony.  They chose slaves because they’re the most likely to rise up in revolution and present a serious threat, and part of the game has you facilitating this (hence the name).  However, unlike Freedom Cry, slaves are not commodified in Liberation or turned into numbers you need to raise to progress.  The first slave you free in Liberation has a name and some characterization, for instance.  It’s a small thing, but it’s very much appreciated nonetheless.

The layout of this game is a bit flatter than other Asscreeds.  I mean that literally, as in vertical height.  There’s only 11 lookout points you can climb and jump off of to get a sweeping vista, and they’re not really all that high up when compared to buildings in AC1 and 2.  That said, honestly?  They’re plenty high for something I’d want to climb in real life.  Not every city has Venice’s sweeping huge architectural craziness, and frankly, some of those climbs felt very video gamey and unrealistic.  The New Orleans and surrounding bayou of Liberation feels much more real, to me, precisely because it lacks a bunch of conveniently-placed climbing towers disguised as buildings.  Looking at Aveline perched on top of some of this game’s lookouts, I feel like it’s a height I can wrap my head around.

You’re also not going to find a ton of side activities in Liberation.  No ships to drive or furniture to buy or whatever.  There are little stashes of money to find, scattered around.  There are shops to visit to upgrade your weapons, replenish your ammo, and buy new outfits.  There is a side game involving sending ships on trading routes to make money, but it’s all done in menus and honestly you never really need to do this if you’re exploring for loot at all, it’s more of an RP thing.  And… that’s it!  The main focus here is on the story.  In fact, especially early on, you’re actually being teleported around to the various missions you should be doing.  Don’t go into Liberation expecting some grand sandbox open world.  The city is used as a backdrop against which to express Aveline’s social pressures and intense restriction into expectations and norms, not her freedom.  And that’s fine.

So yeah, if you aren’t a big AC fan but you wanna check out probably the best gamification to date of intersectionality and the societal pressures placed on bi-“racial” women in the 18th century, hey!  Liberation is the game for you.  It certainly is for me, I love this game.  On the other hand, if you’re a Real-Ass Gamer, you… probably didn’t even read this, let’s be honest.  Can gamers read?  I honestly can’t tell.

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